Now, after twenty-eight years, my own sense of this
book has changed. I see it as less a specific record of
Maoist China and more an exploration of what might be the most
dangerous direction of the twentieth-century mind—the quest for
absolute or "totalistic" belief systems.
Indeed, that quest has produced nothing short of a worldwide
epidemic of political and religious fundamentalism—of movements
characterized by literalized embrace of sacred texts as containing
absolute truth for all persons, and a mandate for militant, often vio-
lent, measures taken against designated enemies of that truth or
mere unbelievers. The epidemic includes fundamentalist versions of
existing religions and political movements as well as newly emerging
groups that may combine disparate ideological elements.
These latter groups are often referred to as cults, now a somewhat
pejorative designation, so that some observers prefer the term new
religions. But I think we can speak of cults as groups with certain
characteristics: first, a charismatic leader, who tends increasingly to
become the object of worship in place of more general spiritual prin-
ciples that are advocated; second, patterns of "thought reform" akin
to those described in this volume, and especially in Chapter 22; and
third, a tendency toward manipulation from above with considerable
exploitation (economic, sexual, or other) of ordinary supplicants or
recruits who bring their idealism from below.